Provincial Tensions Ahead of Loya Jirga

Disputes over the military command of several provinces are raising tensions in the run-up to next month's grand assembly.

Provincial Tensions Ahead of Loya Jirga

Disputes over the military command of several provinces are raising tensions in the run-up to next month's grand assembly.

Straddling the strategic highway between the capital, Kabul, and the city of Kandahar, Zabul province is bordered in the north by the high Aruzgan mountains and by the Durand border with Pakistan in the south.

The inhabitants of the predominantly Pashtun province, drawn from the Tokhi, Hotak and Taraki tribes, once settled their differences through traditional jirgas, or assemblies - a national "grand" version of which, the Loya Jirga, is expected to settle the whole nation's differences.

But the same political forces that threaten to disturb the grand assembly scheduled for June 10 have already destabilised tribal relations in Zabul, threatening to unleash violence across the province.

These forces asserted themselves as soon as Taleban rule collapsed in Afghanistan in November 2001.

Two rival commanders stepped in to take over. One was Commander Hamedullah - a supporter of the former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, exiled to Iran for years but whose current whereabouts is unknown. The other was Sardar Mohammad - an ally of the ex-Afghan president Burhannudin Rabbani - who has been sidelined by the interim administration.

The two men had served as the provincial governor and military commander respectively before the Taleban takeover. After the student militia fell, Hameedullah ordered his forces to secure the governorship and the fort overlooking the provincial capital, Qalat. He then set about preventing his rival from taking up his old post.

The two men belong to the Tokhi tribe, which alarmed the Hotak and Taraki. To defuse the situation, Hameedullah decided to divide up the plum positions in the provincial administration between the tribes, offering the military command sought by Sardar Mohammad to the Hotak tribal leader, Salam Khan.

In spite of the fact that Sardar Mohammad had a letter from ex-president Rabbani endorsing his own appointment as commander, he was pushed out of the frame.

Hameedullah, meanwhile, bolstered his own position by pledging allegiance to the new interim president Hamid Karzai, despite the fact that his former patron was a definite enemy of the Bonn process. He duly received Kabul's approval for his own appointment of Salam Khan.

Not one to take disappointment lying down, Sardar Mohammad attempted a counter-attack on April 21, gathering his men and moving into the Qalat transport depot. One of Hameedullah's own commanders, Zoy da Haji Manan, came down from the city fort to join him.

The new governor carried the day, however. As fighting broke out, Mohammad Mangai, one of Sardar Mohammad's closest lieutenants, was killed. The would-be military commander and his two surviving junior commanders escaped to Kabul. "Anyone who damages the peace process will be dealt with," Hameedullah said afterwards.

Salam Khan, meanwhile, took harsh measures against Sardar Mohammad's erstwhile ally Haji Manan, taking two of his brothers as hostages until he surrendered his weapons.

Zabul is not the only Afghan province to witness armed disputes between rivals claiming local military commands. Similar struggles have led to violence in the mainly Pashtun provinces of Wardak and Nangrahar.

Many observers believe the Northern Alliance is promoting these conflicts to put pressure on the Pashtuns, the biggest community in Afghanistan, ahead of the definitive political decisions that will be made at the June Loya Jirga.

While tribal leaders jostle for influence and pre-Taleban leaders struggle to regain their old posts, ordinary people fear only one thing - a resumption of the fighting that has already ruined their lives.

In Qalat, an old shoe-mender mused on the situation. "If the civil wars start again I won't even have this piece of bread I'm eating," he declared. "Last time I went to Pakistan as a refugee. Next time I won't even have the money to leave town."

Mohammad Weekh is a freelance journalist from Qalat.

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